To Read or Not To Read ‘Go Set a Watchman’: The Literary Dilemma of the Decade

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The short: Everyone should read ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, especially in their adult lives; if ‘Go Set a Watchman’ was never published, humanity would have been just fine.

Summary: ‘Go Set a Watchman’ begins as Jean Louise Finch (formally known as ‘Scout’) takes an annual trip home from New York to visit her hometown of Maycomb, where 72 year old Atticus Finch is home, suffering from arthritis. Jean Louise is greeted by her suitor, Hank, and is plagued by the question of whether she should come back home, or stay in New York. Jean Louise finds out some ‘damaging’ secrets about her family’s past (aka Atticus was part of the Klu Klux Klan), and she spirals into an identity crisis. The book flashes between Jean Louise’s childhood memories, and the present, and concludes with her decision of whether she should stay, or go.

My advice to readers: Read it, knowing that this was Harper Lee’s first draft before she wrote ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, and that for most authors, their first drafts are always TERRIBLE. I found the writing itself falling short; one of the great aspects of reading ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ is the beautiful, lengthy, densely packed sentences that ‘Go Set a Watchman’ fails to achieve. I found some of the logic, such as Atticus’ speech about his role in the council, not following, and I felt myself trying to place the childhood stories of Scout, Jem, and Dill into ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’; I completely understood Atticus’ explanation of why he joined the Klu Klux Klan (definitely some life-lessons to discuss there), but did not feel like that lined up with his explanation of sitting on the council. I felt like the story left many loose ends; originally, I rooted for Atticus, because I wanted to say that his past mistakes were how he gained his wisdom, and I could forgive him for that, but then his present self was also problematic; I felt that story about Jem’s death was skipped over–considering his starring role, I thought he would get a little more attention, and that this should be some central part of the book (although, I have some skepticism about that: I ran into a girl at the Shakespeare Globe Theater, of all places, who happened to work for the agency publishing the book, and she said only one person was allowed to see it before publication, which makes me wonder how much of the story was changed/altered by a third party, even though that is denied, in order to piece the stories together–perhaps there was no Jem in the first place, and someone had to add a few lines to streamline the two stories). And, while the book is set during segregation, racial tensions are not really the central themes.

What I think readers should take away: As far as literary themes go, ‘Go Set a Watchman’ focuses on what happens when people are immersed in a society, how ideologies are formed as truth, and who we to blame for injustice–and the danger behind all of this. In one part of the novel, Jean Louise sits for Coffee, a social occasion in which all the ladies of the town are invited over to see Jean Louise. As the women sit and chat, Jean Louise pays attention to how they are literally reiterating everything their husbands say; ‘a woman’s duty is to support her husband’. Being in a place with no diverse opinion and no diverse thought, in this case, is dangerous; Jean Louise represents the outsider–Northerner–perspective, and struggles as she sees the town she grew up in as so blatantly–unbeknownst to them–racist. Immersed in a culture, the Maycomb women see the importance of segregation as truth, and the story as Jean Louise to question whether it is the individual person who she must get angry at, or the institution, because the individual person does not know any better.

The novel also asks us to consider that perhaps there is a difference between what we want to do, and what we should do. Jean Louise (and Scout for that matter) both operate under a significant amount of free will; they do what they want, when they want, however they want. They don’t want to wear dresses, so they wear trousers instead. They don’t want to be stuffy-lady like, so they jet out of the social gatherings. They find Calpurnia’s people more relate-able, so they spend time over there. At the end of the novel, Jean Louise wants to return to New York, but perhaps she should stay in Maycomb instead. As people, we are constantly battling between our individual desires and societal expectations, and ‘Go Set a Watchman’ asks us to consider times when what we should do is not necessarily what we want to do.

And, in both the story and it’s publication, the story reminds us that there is such thing as a fallible human. In fact, we are all guilty of it. One of the largest themes of the story is Jean Louise’s coming of age; the omniscient dad she once knew turns out to be someone completely different, and she begins questioning her own existence. I think there comes a time in all of our lives that we realize that our parents, our teachers, our coaches, our mentors are people–just like the rest of us. This happened to me when my dad got re-married. Who I thought my dad was, and who he chose to marry were completely different people, and it was really difficult for me to deconstruct and rebuild those perspectives; like Scout, I went through a period of reflecting back on all my memories of my childhood, and had to restructure them to fit this new version. While it certainly was not easy, my dad and I are on better terms now than we ever were. People fail us. They disappoint us, they do things we never predicted, they make mistakes, but that is just human nature. And, we must learn to forgive them for their shortcomings, because we have our own, too (although, in my opinion, Jean Louise could have learned this in a different route than Atticus’ political and segregation views).

Writing is hard, and we sometimes forget that writing comes from real people. We expect that, because it says ‘published’, it must be perfect, and everything makes sense, and there are no lapses or confusing parts. Perhaps Jem’s character falls by the wayside, and Atticus is racist, and Uncle Jack does not fit the Uncle Jack Miss Maudie hoots after. Much like Jean Louise experiences, perhaps people are not always what they seem. From this manuscript, it is clearly evident that Harper Lee was no instant literary prodigy when she first began writing, and I think as fans, we feel kind of betrayed, because we have this misconception that writers, like celebrities and professional athletes, are automatically GODS; they have no problems, they have always been gifted at what they do, and they never had to overcome anything. We expect Harper Lee to give us a plethora of new ordained wisdom that we can live our lives with, but perhaps ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ was her sole contribution to society (which, in my opinion, has done plenty for humanity).

If anything, ‘Go Set a Watchman’ reveals the sheer genius that Harper Lee truly is. It is clearly evident that she worked; she went back, restructured, developed her writing and her imaginative world, and was able to put something together that worked. The best part of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ is the amount of story lines that encompass a piece of Scout’s childhood, and how Harper Lee is able to build a Thousand Acre Wood out of her writing; as the reader, I can visualize the street Scout and Jem grew up on, and the characters come alive, because I understand why the characters do the things they do, their backgrounds, how they might interact with certain situations. While the story is kind of about the Tom Robinson trial, it is also about how Jem broke his hand, why the Cunningham’s are respected people, and the Ewell’s are not, and the mystery that is Boo Radley. After reading this second novel, I find the Scout-first-person-perspective in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ brilliant. In ‘Go Set a Watchman’, Jean Louise becomes the moral center, and in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, Atticus is the moral center. Observing the moral center through the narrator’s perspective allows the reader to position their own corrupt conscious; I don’t necessarily relate to Jean Louise, because she apparently is the epitome of ‘color blind’, and as the reader, I probably am not that color blind, but I relate to Scout, because she is at a moment of her development where she questions her perceptions, and she can watch, and judge, and learn from, Atticus’ color blindness. As the reader, it’s much easier for me to experience through a potentially fallible perspective of Scout, because I am potentially fallible, and make judgements on my own, rather than have someone tell me how I should be, and make me feel guilty when I am not that way. Brilliant choices on Harper Lee’s end.

Some people refuse to read ‘Go Set a Watchman’, because they do not want to taint their view of Atticus. If anyone knows me, Atticus Finch is my hero, and I, nerdily, live my life with the slogan, “What would Atticus do?” (if I were to ever find a man with the wisdom of Atticus Finch, the humor of Oscar Wilde, and the pensiveness of John Grady, I would be sold in a heartbeat). In my opinion, the Atticus in this book is not the Atticus I know in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, and for that reason, my perspective remains the same. The Atticus I know does not call his daughter ‘baby’ or ‘honey’, because he is an old parent, and he is not emotional like that. The Atticus I know speaks in short, densely packed, incredibly meaningful thought out phrases, such as, “Before I can live with other folks, I have to live with myself” (you know, phrases that make you sit and go, ‘hmmm’ because they are so jam packed with wisdom), and not long, jargony, confusing conversations. The Atticus I know would have treated his son’s death with more meaning and solace than just, “we need to move on”. For me, Atticus Finch remains the same pillar of moral strength. He’s still my literary hero, and I can forgive Harper Lee. To be quite honest, when I teach ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ this year, I am probably going to forget about this story altogether.

My favorite quote? (aka the only thing I thought really worthy of digging out my highlighter): “Atticus Finch’s secret of living was so simple it was deeply complex…his private character was his public character”.

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